Timing is Everything (Almost) – in Business, Life, and Policymaking

A Lesson in Humility

I and many other writers and researchers have joined this innovative platform – Substack – that is a business I knew was coming, I just didn’t know when. You might ask how? Because several years a good friend of mine had precisely this idea for an internet-based platform and business but couldn’t convince enough funders at the time that the demand, from both content creators and consumers, was there.

Now, Substack is here, and I predict it will be the next big thing on the Internet. Hopefully, it will be much more informative and more socially productive network and platform than either Facebook or Twitter (whose platforms ironically Substack authors, including me, use to promote their Substack columns!).

The story about Substack and my friend underscores what too many entrepreneurs and investors already know about the launching of new businesses: timing is everything (almost).

The stories of two of the world’s richest people and most successful entrepreneurs can attest to that. Consider first Bill Gates. Had he not been born and then come to age at just the right time that operating systems were needed for personal computers, Microsoft probably never would have been launched (and even then, though Gates made a brilliant decision to insist that IBM take a non-exclusive license to his software, he was lucky IBM accepted: https://hbr.org/2013/11/the-luck-factor-in-great-decisions).

If he came into this world a few years earlier or later, perhaps Gates would have finished Harvard instead and then gone on to a more conventional career.  True, he had a genius for building a great company and recruiting talented people to work with and for him (even if he was a stern taskmaster by every public account), but who knows whether even with his brilliance Gates would have been able to accomplish what he did with Microsoft in some other endeavor?  

Or consider Jeff Bezos and his founding of Amazon. As I wrote several years ago in Trillion Dollar Economists and explained toward the end of this TedEx talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4SkoG9FWP4w) Amazon’s success was substantially predicated on buyers being able to quickly receive the goods they purchased at reasonable prices (whether they paid for shipping a la carte or did so annually through Amazon Prime). That required competition in shipping, which was unleashed by the deregulation of prices and entry into airlines and trucking accomplished in the late 1970s and 1980 through the leadership of … President Jimmy Carter. Had that not happened and Bezos been entirely dependent on the US Postal Service, it is not at all clear that Amazon would have grown as rapidly as it did, or even that Bezos would have launched the venture at all.

The same is true, of course, with the Internet itself. Had it not come along and a commercial browser for it not been developed, Amazon would not have been possible.

So, like Gates, Bezos was born and came to age at the right time to take advantage of the opportunities that history had opened for him. Had this not been the case, he might have stayed on Wall Street, assuming he would have gone there in an alternative world, and still made a pile of money, but not the huge fortune generated by Amazon.

Bezos, of course, is in good company with other hugely successful Internet-based entrepreneurs who also came of age at the right time after the commercial potential of the Internet had been established or clearly was evident.

Timing is everything – almost – in our personal lives, too. The accidental meetings that morph into long-term relationships or marriage. The teacher(s), religious leader(s), or other role models who inspire us.

To be clear, I am not minimizing the importance of hard work, skill and risk-taking in producing personal or organizational success. I am just highlighting that without the right timing, some or all that success, for each one of us, would not happen. The importance of timing and the randomness associated with it should instill in all of us at least a certain amount of humility.

Finally, timing matters in the policy arena too. It’s not just the fact that legislation often happens in response to a crisis (reflecting Rahm Emanuel’s unforgettable line: “Never let a crisis go to waste”). I’ll provide one very current example in one of my upcoming posts.  

P.S. One of my loyal followers sent me this after I posted this blog, a trailer for a movie with this theme of which I was totally unaware. Almost too good to be true: